Boardgame Reviews

(Single-Player)Thunderbirds Board Game Review – 5…4…3…2…1…Thunderbirds. Are. Go.

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Designed by: Matt Leacock
Published by: Modiphius Entertainment
Players: 1-4
RRP: £44.99

Copy supplied free of charge by Esdevium Games.

I’ve always found it hard to explain to people outside of the UK why the Thunderbirds TV show was so popular. It was an absurd program featuring a family of puppets who operated from the luxurious Tracy Island, using their wealth to help save people around the world, utilising their small fleet of impressive Thunderbird vehicles. For myself, though, it was a lot of fun. I actually owned a brilliant Tracy Island toy back in the day, complete with a fully working door built into the cliff that opened to allow Thunderbird 2 to take off and a sliding pool which hid Thunderbird 1. It was awesome. So when I heard that Matt Leacock, the man who designed Pandemic, one of my favorite games, had made a new board game based on Thunderbirds, how could I not review it?

As the Tracy family, with Lady Penelope as an ally, it’s your job to fly around the globe averting various disasters, all while attempting to defeat the evil Hood’s dread plans, a villainous name that I admit sounds somewhat less fear inspiring than the writers probably thought. Also, the guy doesn’t have a hood, so that’s….yeah. Coming from Matt Leacock there’s a strong Pandemic flavour running through a lot of the game’s mechanics, including how everything feels interconnected, creating a pure co-op game where players need to carefully plan out their three actions per turn  else taste defeat due to one of three possible ways to lose. If you’ve ever played Pandemic before I’m sure you’ll note familiar concepts as you read through this review, but there’s enough variations to make this a similiar yet different game.

To win you must successfully derail all three of the Hood’s schemes that get laid out at the top of the board, while also dealing with several event cards that will be activated along the way, each one tossing a small spanner in the works, like decreasing movement. During the course of the game the Hood figure will move along his little track thanks to special cards being drawn and dice rolls, and should he ever reach one of his scheme cards before you’ve solved it then it’s game over. It sounds like such an easy task, but this is a Matt Leacock game, meaning it’s far, far from being easy. But at least there’s an adjustable difficulty that works by using the differently numbered scheme cards; level 1 schemes are obviously the easiest, while level 4 schemes are the toughest, thus my mixing and matching you can up the challenge or decrease as you see fit.

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Setup is an absolute doddle, taking no more than about five minutes. The rulebook is also easy to digest, laying out every rule and possible action in a way that means even non-boardgame players should be able to get a grip on the rules very quickly. For a solo game the rulebook says you should randomly draw three characters from the selection of six; John Tracy, Gordon Tracy, Scott Tracy, Virgil Tracy, Alan Tracy and Lady Penelope. An extra rule is added in solo play that lets you spend an entire turn to swap one character out for any other, but during play I actually only bothered using this rule for my first game and then abandoned it entirely afterwards, finding it felt smoother to play with the alloted three characters. Interestingly despite their being five Tracy brothers and Lady Penelope to play as the game only supports a maxium of four people around the table.

Although you must defeat the Hood in order to win and his movement on the board is important, it’s arguably the disaster track that drives the entire game, keeping constant pressure on you. Every turn a new disaster card is drawn and added to the track at the bottom of the board, while all existing cards get moved up one space. All of these disasters feature little chunks of flavour text and images taken directly from the show, so you might find yourself dealing with an attack of the alligators or rescuing folk from under a burning building. Should one of these cards ever reach the last place on the track, then you lose.

The only time you don’t have to shift the cards is if you drawn one stating that “The Hood Advances”, forcing you to move the Hood so that he’s one step closer to victory. In a very Pandemic mechanic these cards get spread throughout the deck at the start of the game, done by first seeding the disaster track with three cards and then splitting the rest of the deck into four piles with nine cards each. You then slide two Hood cards into each pile, shuffling them as you go, and then stack them together, thus ensuring a relatively good distribution.

To avert a disaster you typically have to move to the indicated part of the world and perform a Rescue action, grabbing the two included dice and attempting to beat the number printed on the top left. The easiest rescues just need you to roll pretty low, but the hardest require an eleven. You’ve got to be careful, though, because on both dice the number 6 has been replaced by Hood symbols, and if you roll one then at the end of the turn the Hood will move, inchng toward the completion of his nefarious goals, because apparently the guy just sits around waiting for Thunderbirds to cock up rescues before bothering to do some work. Lazy git. No wonder he never beat them.

“But wait, you mathematically challenged ponce, if there are no sixes then you can’t perform those very luck-based rescue missions, since a roll of 11 needs at least one 6” you’re thinking, to which I reply a) I’m glad you understand how maths works, b) stop being a smartarse, and c) shut up. Printed on disaster cards are a series of bonuses that can be added to your dice role for having specific characters, Thunderbird vehicles and equipment either in the same part of the world as the disaster, or somewhere else, depending on what the card tells you. You may, for example, have to deal with Terror on New York City, a disaster card that requires a roll of eleven to complete. But by having the Firefly POD vehicle, Virgil and Thunderbird 4 all at the location in North America you can get +7 added to your roll. Furthermore five out of the game’s six character offer a further when attempting specific types of rescue. In this instance Terror in New York City is classified as a sea rescue, so if Gordon Tracy attempts it then a further +3 is added to the dice roll, which would actually make the task impossible to fail at.  Another card, Sun Probe, also needs a roll of 11, however if you can get Scott up to the Sun you’ll get +2, and then you can get +2 for having Virgil in Asia, with a further bonus of +3 for also having the Transmitter Truck POD vehicle in Asia as well. Since it’s classified as a space rescue having John Tracy perform it will also grant +2 to the roll.

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This brings into player one of the game’s biggest mechanics, the ability to transfer character pegs between vehicles and have them pilot their new ride. Since transferring a character is a free action you could theoretically have one character use three Thunderbirds in a single turn if you wanted, hopping from one to the other. Furthermore you can transfer other characters into your vehicle on your turn, too. In a game with multiple people at the table you obviously have to ask before simply kidnapping them or hijacking their vehicle, but when playing solo you can always ask yourself politely if it’s okay to steal Virgil away for a night on the town. That’s not all, either, because Thunderbird 2 is capable of transporting either the FAB1 car or Thunderbird 4 in its cargo hold, which is perfect since both of those vehicles have the slowest speed in the game, not counting Thunderbird 5 because…well, it’s a space station and can’t move from its location in orbit. It’s this system of movement and transferring characters that is the lynchpin of the entire game, forming a puzzle where you must place all the correct pieces into an ever-moving and changing layout. With a top speed of 3 Thunderbird 1 is one the fastest vehicle in entire game, but it can only seat two people, making it great for quickly shuttling one person around the board, while Thunderbird 2 is a slower but it can take three people plus an entire vehicle or two pieces of POD equipment with it.

But what about that space station I mentioned? Well, it’s home to one of the Tracy brothers at the start of the game, namely the eldest John, who was presumably grounded as a child and then forgotten about for quite a while before his dad remembered him and decided he was actually quite useful up there. Tt sits in the centre of a row of space locations near the top and can’t move from its position. It might seem a useless thing, then, but any character currently occupying the station can spend an action to perform a scan, letting you move one disaster card backwards and thus buying more time. Thunderbird 3 is the only thing capable of making the trip up into space and then moving around to the various locations there, but it can’t move around Earth. It’s therefore the only method of getting back and forth between the space station and the ground, too.

The way movement and transferring characters is handled creates damn smart system, tying into the fact that rescues are all about risk mitigation. There’s no actual penalty as such for attempting a rescue and failing, but every time you roll those dice you risk the Hood moving and bringing you all closer to defeat, thus you want to try to make sure that you’ll nail the rescue on your first go by getting as many bonuses as possible. Virgil, Alan, Gordon and Scott and all bring their own +2 bonus for attempting land, sea, air and space rescues, too. However, while you always want to get the biggest bonus possible, you have to weigh that against how long it takes. Spend too much time faffing around by getting everything into place and you risk too many disasters piling up and losing the game. Each turn becomes a case of figuring out the most optimal method of travelling around the world. Do you perhaps move directly over to Thunderbird 3 to head up to space, or would you be better off making a short detour to lay the groundwork for averting another disaster? If so, which one? Should you move this character now or later, or even at all? Who should be aiming for which disaster? Play particularly well and you can even deal with more than one disaster per turn. That’s rare, though, and so you’ll typically barely find yourself keeping on top of the disasters

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The reward for completing disasters is, of course, not losing the entire game in embarrassing fashion, but you’ll also be granted one or more special tokens that offer special bonuses. One gives you +2 on any roll, for example, and another lets you take one extra action. The green tokens, meanwhile, can be spent to construct special pod vehicles from Brain’s notebook next to Tracy Island on the map. Once constructed these machines can be picked up and delivered by Thunderbird 2 around the world to help combat disasters. Fans of the show will obviously recognize things like the Mole, the Firefly, Elevator Cars and many more. I’m also a huge fan of how Thunderbird 2’s model actually has a cargo section that can lifted off so that you can physically place whatever it’s carrying inside.

The big catch is that these special tokens are usually needed to defeat the evil Hood’s equally evil schemes. The first scheme is also flipped over at the start of the game, and once it’s solved the next one gets revealed, hopefully well before the Hood token even gets close to it. Just like disasters schemes need you to have successfully get certain characters, POD vehicles and Thunderbirds into the right locations, as well as cash in those valuable tokens to defeat a scheme. It’s a lovely piece of Pandemic design; you need the resources to beat the game, but you end up having to spend those resources to avoid losing in other ways. In Pandemic you needed city cards to concoct a cure for the deadly viruses rampaging across Earth but frequently wound up spending them to jet across the globe so that you could head off potential outbreaks. In Thunderbirds you need tokens to defeat the Hood’s scheme, the most difficult of which require a hell of a lot of things to come together, but may end up having to use them to help stave off disasters. It’s a piece of design I adore because it creates one more thing to consider; should you try to wade through the mounting disasters while saving those tokens for the schemes, or should you spend them to get some breathing room? Of course sometimes you won’t get much of a choice; as disasters pile up you might just find yourself forced to spend all of them in a desperate bid to clean house.

Derailing one of the Hood’s devious plans results in you being able to draw a FAB card, a deck of powerful abilities that can really help you out, including being able to instantly move vehicles from place to place, move disaster cards backwards and much more. You can also snag one of these cards by using up an action, but if you do so then the Hood moves forward, making it a risky proposition best kept for dire circumstances. The more attractive option is to spend a blue Intelligence token, letting you draw a FAB card without having to move the Hood, although this does obviously mean potentially spending a resource needed to defeat him.

You can always generate new resources, though. Five out of the six characters can spend one action per turn to generate a specific resources, provided certain conditions are met. John, Gordon, Virgil and Alan all have to be in their own Thunderbirds, while Penelope needs to be in Europe.

Much like Pandemic Thunderbirds works strongly as a solo game. Naturally you lose the element of planning that comes with having multiple people sitting around the room, debating who needs to do what and when, but there’s a different feeling to working out everything yourself. Both methods prove to be just as satisfying, but in differing ways; there’s a distinct pleasure to be had from beating the game yourself, because victory or defeat rests squarely on your shoulders. The satisfaction of winning with a team is wonderful, too. It’s a game that I’m happy to pull out when friends are round or when I’m just looking to kill an hour, making it damn good value for money as it gets about twice the use a normal 2+ player game does.

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The components and visual design of the game are nearly flawless for me. Thunderbirds is awash with vibrant colors, while the disasters, events and FAB cards all boast images taken directly from the show. The disasters are also neatly color-coded to show which character would get a bonus when performing a rescue operation. The only hiccup is the scheme cards which look dull compared to everything else, a lifeless grey with rows of icons indicating just how screwed you are. They are a small complaint, though, amidst everything else. . The small pegs used to represent the characters (you can sort of see their likeness) can be a bit fiddly to fit in from time to time, but I expect them to loosen up with use.

So with these quality components in place does the game dutifully reflect its theme? Well, yes, and no. The TV show was largely about the Tracy family and Lady Penelope scooting around the globe saving random folks from peril and battling the Hood, all while trying to make sure their blatantly obvious strings didn’t get caught up in the scenery. And that’s exactly what the board game has you doing, albeit without the strings, although you’re perfectly welcome to emulate the absurd walk that stemmed from people trying to operate complex puppets if you like. When you strip away that theme, though, what you’re left with is a glorified pick up and deliver X to X game, there’s no arguing that. I’m also a little disappointed to see that the only variations between the Tracy brothers is that each one gets a bonus on different land types. That’s it. But frankly I don’t care; it’s a joy to play. Is it better than Pandemic? Tough call. For sure it’s the way that Thunderbirds mirrors Pandemic that clicks so well with me, but whether it’s better….eh. I think Pandemic would pick up the win because Thunderbirds doesn’t come together as tightly.

Toss such nonsense aside, though, because Thunderbirds is a whole lot of fun in its own right, managing to capture the theme without being reliant on it, so even if you’ve watched the show you can still enjoy the game. But how much can you enjoy it? Is its success because the theme and gameplay mix together well, or is it a good game regardless of its own license? I personally think so. Had this had some other aesthetic style or even a license I wasn’t familiar with then I’d still have heaps of fun with it. Indeed, while Thunderbirds was a big part of my growing up I’ve never been very nostalgic about it – I’ve not even watched an episode of it in….wow, it has to be 10+ years. Even so I was engrossed, appreciating the theme for enhancing the game but never feeling like it was the reason for my playing.

But what of flaws? Surely there must be some? Well, if there is a flaw it’s that John is a bit useless, just like in the show! Thematic win! Okay, so that’s not entirely fair, he can simply be a bit of a pain to start with. He’s stuck up on Thunderbird 5, a space station that sits in orbit above Earth and cannot be moved. The downside is it means somebody has to pop up in Thunderbird 3 and then back down to Earth to get John in the game. An additional rule, however, does state that if John is in play then Thunderbird 3 starts in space to aid in getting John into the action faster. Still, this slight inconvenience is offset by his powerful ability to let every player ignore a Hood result on the dice once per rescue action, plus he gets a bonus to space rescues. In fact he and Alan are the only two characters in the game that get bonuses for the same rescue type, meaning they are a perfect tag-team for dealing with space missions. Lady Penelope also feels weak at first because she starts across the board from her comrades and her car is damn slow, meaning she needs to get shuttle around a lot to be effective. However, she also has the ability to swap any token she has with any other token, a powerful skill when used right. In other words what I initially thought were unbalanced characters turned out to be anything but. In fact, the whole game is well balanced.

I still feel like I’m doing this too damn often for board games at the moment, but Thunderbirds earns itself a Recommendation sticker. If you stripped away the theme it wouldn’t quite earn itself one, but would remain a great game regardless. However, as a package it’s simply great fun. The way characters can be swapped around between vehicles proved to be a slight headache for inexperienced games, I did find, so it’s not quite as good a gateway game as Pandemic is, but it didn’t take them long to get a grip on the mechanic. Once they did they became engrossed in the action, pondering the best ways to tackle incoming disasters. As for me I was more than happy to set this up and play solo. It’s really a terrific game to feature in this Single-Player series. If you love Pandemic, you’re going to like this. If you enjoy Matt Leacock’s designs, then you’ll like this. If you like the Thunderbirds, you’ll like this. If you just enjoy good games, you’ll like this.

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